Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly

Going Out / Julia Gasper / Opera / Oxford / Review / Theatre

Madama Butterfly performed by Ellen Kent Opera at New Theatre Oxford

A review by Julia Gasper

Madama Butterfly is the second Puccini opera being offered in the Ellen Kent Company’s 2020 tour, and it is an absolute treat. This is a revival of a previous production that won a lot of awards, and you can quite see why. It has everything – style, taste, conviction, superb soloists, and exquisite detail. There are no gimmicks, no attempts to make the story up-to-date or “relevant” as it simply does not need any. If you only see one production of Madame Butterfly in your life, this would be a good choice to make. It is both powerful and poignant.

Madama Butterfly

            In the title role of the Japanese geisha girl Madame Butterfly, the much-admired Korean soprano Elena Dee gives an outstanding, definitive performance. Her sublime voice and ethereal tones are really ideal for this rôle and did full justice to it at every point. She is well-matched in the tenor Georgio Meladze (who is originally from Georgia) as Lieut Pinkerton, the American naval officer. He has performed the rôle in two previous productions, and he carries it off with great assurance, in his impeccable white uniform. His gorgeous voice and confidence on the stage made him ideal for the part, and he contrasted well with Iurie Gisca (baritone) as Sharpless, the American consul, who well conveyed his qualms and reservations about the hasty marriage that Butterfly is entering into.

About the production

            There are some opera productions that offer nothing more than a bare black or white backdrop and a few cardboard boxes in the way of scenery. Not this one. It is lavish in its use of scenery, costumes and everything that can create atmosphere. The setting in a traditional Japanese garden is meticulously created, with miniature trees in blossom, dangling lanterns, statuettes and a fountain with running water. The pavilion house – fragile and flimsy like a butterfly – has translucent panels through which we can get delicate silhouette effects hinting at what goes on in the interior. When Butterfly’s wedding procession arrives in Act I the women are arrayed in silken robes and kimonos in subtle shades, with sashes, fans, painted parasols and flowers in their elaborately styled hair; the men likewise in robes and pigtails. When the Bonze (Vadim Cernovettky), the local priest, arrives to denounce Butterfly for converting to Pinkerton’s religion and forsaking the spirits of all her ancestors, he is dressed in a fearsome costume with wide shoulders and carrying a pike.

Madama Butterfly

            We must mention the admirable performance of little Jessica Man as Madame Butterfly’s child, not a singing rôle, but nevertheless crucial in its way. It is the final cruelty of being deprived of her child that completes Butterfly’s tragedy.

This exotic setting and aesthetic experience render bearable a story that would otherwise be unbearable. To Pinkerton, the contract between him and Butterfly, arranged for payment by a marriage broker, is just a temporary “marriage”, a holiday fling, and he makes it clear from the start that he does not take it seriously. He jokes to the American consul Sharpless that it is like the lease he has taken out on the house, which has an option to cancel at a month’s notice. To Butterfly, who is only 15, the marriage is agonizingly serious and she falls deeply, passionately in love. She is one of many opera heroines of course, who love not wisely but too well, and she is one of the most vulnerable. Her name, Butterfly, conveys her fragility and defencelessness. She is not truly a weak character, as her determination to resist all temptation to marry the wealthy Yamadori (Vitalii Cebotari) proves. However, she is of course naïve and romantic which makes her susceptible to a callous and cynical adventurer such as Pinkerton. Elena Dee’s performance captured this fragility and vulnerability to perfection. When in the final Act Pinkerton starts to express some remorse, referring to his feelings of guilt, it only increases our horror at his cold-blooded exploitation of a girl who is little more than a child.

The orchestra

The orchestra, conducted by Nicolae Dohotaru, did full justice to Puccini’s rich score, with its extraordinary range, from the energetic contrapuntal opening to the delicate dreaminess of the intermezzo between Acts Two and Three.

The barriers between high and popular culture are breaking down, and at the curtain call the audience at this performance ironically booed Georgio Meladze just for a few seconds, as they might boo the villain in a pantomime, before applauding him. I suppose this is no more surprising than the fact that the New Theatre now sells popcorn to the audience. Anybody who sings such a villainous role in future will have to accept this sort of thing with good humour. It does not mean that their artistic achievement is unappreciated.

About Ellen Kent Productions

Ellen Kent’s achievement in setting up her now celebrated international opera company is a truly remarkable one. She has made a tremendous contribution to classical music that deserves the highest recognition.

You can see this production as it goes on tour in the next three months at venues including Aylesbury, London, Brighton, Birmingham, Hastings, Torquay and York.

                                                                              Julia Gasper.

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